Frank Lampard said Chelsea are conceding goals as a team. The players ahead of and alongside his defenders are as much responsible as the back line.
All the talk of halfspaces, registas, inverted this or that, and whatever Brazilian pretension about the No. 10 role Kevin (ironically) dropped all come down to one thing: can your offensive build-up isolate the opponent’s fullback so your attackers can go at him at least one-on-one, if not two- or more-on one? Or, if you have a cheat code like Eden Hazard, one-on-four?
On the other side, does your team’s structure in transition to and on defence protect your fullbacks from being isolated? For Chelsea’s opponents and Chelsea themselves, the answers are yes, not applicable (the Hazard question) and no, respectively.
Cesar Azpilicueta is in many sets of crosshairs this season: opponents and ignorant critics, alike. The former are finding him an attractive target because Chelsea’s full-pitch defensive structure through the centre and right side invites attacks towards Azpilicueta rather than slowing them down, breaking them up or, at the very least, bringing effective defenders into support positions so Azpilicueta is not always in 1v1 or 1v2 situations. The latter find him an attractive target because of Williamson’s First Law (the actual law, not the Perry variant): everything is simple when you don’t know a f***ing thing about it.
Frank Lampard knows that football is simple in its own way. It’s not rocket science, contra Pep-bots. But that does not mean the surface answer is the correct one. Before slating a right-back for his performance in wave after wave of last-man situations, Lampard knows you have to ask why it came to that.
As my colleague Hugo talked about after the Sheffield United game, Chelsea’s lack of width in attack invites counter-attacks and pressure on Chelsea’s full-backs.
Cesar Azpilicueta has been the main source of width in the attack. He leads the team with seven crosses, three of which were key passes. His presence high and wide, though, creates a channel for an out-ball and counter-attack.
Once the play comes through that channel, Azpilicueta still recovers his positioning well. He is making more tackles per game, is making those tackles against a greater amount of dribbles against him and these are coming higher up the pitch than last season, per StatsBomb.
The serious problems arise once Azpilicueta does everything he can short of dispossessing the ball as things advance deep into Chelsea’s defensive third.
Azpilicueta’s defensive cover through midfield and into the defensive third is Jorginho. Sheffield United’s first goal was a prime example of how Jorginho’s weak marking allowed Callum Robinson to run inside while Enda Stevens then ran right through both Azpilicueta and Jorginho.
Azpilicueta should have tackled Stevens, but when he didn’t, Jorginho needed to cover either Stevens, his pass or his recipient, Robinson. He did none of that, allowing Stevens to send a pass to the now-unmarked Robinson for the goal. Jorginho was not enough to interdict the play as a 2v2 or even the 1v2. No other Chelsea player picked up Robinson’s run, but it would have been difficult for any to do so without leaving a even larger gap in coverage in an even more dangerous part of the box.
If Cesar Azpilicueta is there to mark the wide ball-carrier, his same-side midfielder – Jorginho – must cover the run off the ball. Otherwise, a centre-back needs to come off his line (bad) or that runner is open for a pass into the box. Similarly, Azpilicueta can only shepherd the ball-carrier towards the byline. He does not have the option of showing the ball-carrier inside, because then he is just inviting the ball-carrier to run at Jorginho 1v1, which is the ideal situation for the opponent.
This is the crux of every unmarked cutback Chelsea have given up this season. Azpilicueta does what he can to slow down the ball carrier and let the Blues’ defence organize. But if he cannot win the tackle, he has to take the carrier to a position that opens up a pass into prime shooting position because the Blues do not have a midfielder covering the defence in these positions.
Once N’Golo Kante returns to the lineup, Cesar Azpilicueta’s job will get easier as his options expand and his calls to action decrease. But Kante is not the only midfield option who can better support the defence in all stages of the game.
After the Sheffield United game, a reporter asked Frank Lampard about the Danny Drinkwater and Tiemoue Bakayoko loans, saying “You do seem short in midfield.” Lampard responded by saying:
"If you want to talk midfield players, we’ve got Jorginho, we’ve got Kovacic, we’ve got Kante, we’ve got Mount. We’ve got Ross Barkley. We’ve got Reece James coming back from injury, he can play midfield. Andreas Christensen can play in midfield. I make decisions on the squad as a whole. – BeanymanSports"
Most chatter around Reece James’ return has been about him replaing Cesar Azpilicueta at right-back. We agreed with that in part last month, but said James at right-back would free up Azpilicueta to play defensive midfielder a la Javier Zanetti, as Barrett has been predicting for some time.
Lampard may be considering a different approach for James: play him at defensive midfield and keep Azpilicueta at right-back.
Defensive midfield would be a slightly more protected role for James as he transitions into the Premier League. He could have N’Golo Kante and Cesar Azpilicueta around him providing defensive support while also covering him if the plays sweeps him forward. At Wigan last season he regularly found himself amongst the attack as a wing-back.
Like Azpilicueta but at the other end of the spectrum, James’ age may make him vulnerable as a forward-playing full-back. But as a versatile defensive midfielder adjacent to two of the Premier League’s top defensive players, he could flourish in both directions while the Blues finally find their fully functional transition and defensive battery on the right side.
Frank Lampard mentioned two defenders – a centreback and a right-back – as options to bolster the midfield. If he thought his defence’s issues were rooted in the defenders, he would not mess around with James and Christensen as midfielders – Chelsea would need them too much in their primary positions.
Chelsea have conceded a lot of expected goals and even more actual goals this season. Lampard said they concede goals as a team. Before anyone singles out Cesar Azpilicueta, Kurt Zouma or any other defender, they first need to ask what the team did to leave the defenders in those final positions.